The hospital’s administrative wing smelt like antiseptic and pleather. Its glass windows and cubicle dividers were plastered with patients’ crayon drawings, some of whom I knew would not live to see the end of the year.
I followed the professor to her office, a cosy space stacked high with notes and files, a bulletin board tacked with more drawings, this time with a hint of home. Thank you for looking after me, read one card, written in a wobbly hand. Happy Mother’s Day, said another. I scanned the room, looking for clues about home to slip into the conversation later, useful for filling lulls or coaxing more chatter out of a potentially reticent interviewee.
Today’s chat required no such small talk. My interviewee was relaxed and confident, her tone brisk but kind, her short crop the result of a recent shave done in solidarity with patients too young to understand the symbolism of it.
“When they saw my hair they were like, what’s the big deal? We’re bald too,” she said.
Her eyes twinkled for an instant, then sobered up just as briefly.
“People don’t like to talk about children dying, but we should. The fact is that children die. How can we help to make their last days more comfortable?” she said, segueing easily into the topic of children’s palliative care.
Her tone was sombre yet matter-of-fact, and I guessed this was a conversation she had had many times – with patients’ parents, fellow doctors, and the hospital’s administration.
I never got to find out, but I spent my journey home ruminating on the topic. What would it take to bury your child? How do doctors and caregivers even open this pandora’s box? Many parents thankfully never have to answer that question, but by then I had conducted enough interviews on the topic of children’s cancer to know there is a staggering number who do.
It was a bleak topic, and writing this now I struggle to describe how I felt when I left the hospital that day. Certainly not happiness, and nothing so hubristic as pride. But gratification, perhaps – that out of all my projects this year, this one had led me here, to somewhere I felt like my writing mattered.
I have always loved Singapore, but I remember when I didn’t like her very much. Every Singaporean has their complaints, and these were mine: Being pressed, back to shoulder to chest against a crush of people during my morning commute, so close I could feel the wet strands of somebody else’s freshly-washed hair on my arm. The clacking of dress shoes and kitten heels, swelling into a crescendo, a discordant frenzy I could not shut out.
The work, because as much as I enjoyed my time in the Navy it was still work, the daily grind, paperwork and hierarchy and bureaucracy that Human Resource tried to warn me about during my interview.
“The SAF has very rigid systems and hierarchy in place. How do you think you will be able to cope with that within the job?”
It caught me off guard, and I feigned a nonchalance that probably didn’t fool anyone at the table.
“I am goal-oriented, so I will find other ways of completing the task,” I said.
I got the job, and for that I do not want to sound ungrateful. There were parts of it that I loved – the deployments, mostly, the long form articles I had the freedom to write once in a while. Still, I craved a different sunset than the gradually darkening sky I would see during my bus ride home from work, the wispy orange hues turning to ink and clouds by the time I disembarked.
Some days, I hated my own frustration. I was earning decent money for a fresh graduate, with healthy parents and no study loan to speak of. I understood my position of privilege enough to chastise myself for dissatisfaction, even as I wondered why I continually hungered for more – or what I was hungry for.
My first trip, in February this year, was to China’s Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang provinces. The former because I was curious about Mongol minority amidst China’s hegemonic culture, and the latter for its towering ice sculptures carved during a festival every winter.
I spent a week each in Hohhot and Harbin, alternating sightseeing with mornings spent at my hostel lobby answering emails and rewriting draft after draft of press releases, media pitches and feature articles.
These were among my first assignments of my freelance career and I will always remember them for the lessons they taught me – to protect myself with the necessary contracts, and to put a limit on the number of revisions that could go into a single draft. My clients were large corporations, I was an independent contractor, and I could have easily been squashed like a bug. Fear kept me vigilant, alert enough on future assignments not to make the same mistakes twice.
Still, even then, I was ecstatic to be freelancer, to be on a working holiday, to call myself a digital nomad – trendy millennial-esque terms that caused fellow backpackers to raise their eyebrows in envy when I told them what I did for a living.
Back home I could confidently say, when asked about my travel plans — I’m travelling for two weeks in February, a month in April, two weeks in July — without the requisite grovelling or abashed smile or semi-jealous jokes from colleagues about how “lucky” I was.
Finally, after two years of a mostly desk-bound job spent hankering for the open road, I could now travel as much as I wanted, as long as I could find the work to finance my food and lodging along the way. I had left the Navy five months prior and had not stopped relishing the freedom, heady and exhilarating, like riding a bicycle for the first time, pedalling furiously to pick up speed, omg omg I am actually doing this, not daring to stop or slow down lest I fall off.
“Next year is the 25th anniversary of the Children’s Cancer Foundation, and we want to do a publicity campaign featuring short profiles of 25 different stakeholders,” the corporate communications executive was saying. “We hope it will encourage more donors to come forward when they read the stories of our beneficiaries.”
Back in school, studying journalism, I was gripped by the idea that writing the news would somehow make a difference to society. That somehow, by being a journalist I could also be the voice of the little man, the watchdog on government and organisation. Then I graduated, applied for a job at the Straits Times I didn’t get, and never found out if these functions rang true, or if I’d feel gratified fulfilling them.
I didn’t find an answer in freelancing, amidst the many personality profiles and press releases and travelogues and the occasional listicle I churned out this year. Most of the time, I found myself slipping further away from the need for one.
Human beings instinctively choose the path of least resistance, and after hustling and networking my way into a weave of clients who came to provide a relatively steady stream of income, I was on a comfortable jaunt down that path. It had not been easy forging my own road of self-employment, and I was determined to enjoy it, perks and all, waking up at 0900h and spending the day in my pyjamas.
Then, a few months ago, I had brunch with my primary school classmates and oldest friends. One of them, a nurse at Tan Tock Seng hospital, was telling us stories about her work in the geriatric ward, where a night shift means she is on her feet for twelve hours, virtually non stop, because Singapore’s labour shortage is very much alive in our hospitals too.
She told us how some patients would wet themselves, described how some would fall and bleed, how changing their bedclothes and bedsheets was a daily norm. I listened, somewhat in awe that every day she went to work she literally made somebody’s life better. And I couldn’t help but wonder, as much as I loved my job, if I could say the same thing about my profession?
“We have shortlisted two other writers, so we will get back to you once our director has approved the decision. Do you have any last questions for us, anything else you want us to know?”
Omg pick me PLSPLSPLS I really want to tell these stories. “No, I think that’s all. I really hope to work with your team,” I said, managing a smile I hoped was keen without being overeager.
When I left their office I forced myself to push the job to the back of my mind, because desire is the bedrock of disappointment. More importantly, there were other jobs to complete, other trips to plan for, more flights to catch. Still, back in the safety net of everyday life, it would come to me, what I had really wanted to say then. I want to write content that can better someone’s life.
I travelled a total of fifteen weeks this year, or almost four out of twelve months. It wasn’t a goal I had set out, or even a figure I was conscious of, until I totalled up a year’s worth of travel time to see if it made sense to buy annual travel insurance in 2017.
Within these fifteen weeks I checked a good number of places off my bucket list. It was my first time on continental Europe, and I had always wanted to explore India and North Korea and New York City.
I had also learned, since my first solo trip to Yogyakarta in 2012, that memory pales the most vivid of landscapes over time. So I journaled as I travelled, trying to write every night, or as often as I could, when colours and scents and joy and fear were recent enough to course through my blood. An unwelcome grope on the ass in India, the awe of watching a mass dance in North Korea; I have often called these entries the first cut of memory.
Even though some of this writing is deeply private and a part of me always worries when I publish my travel experiences on social media (Do I sound self-indulgent? Is this post a humblebrag?), it is one of my greatest rewards (and biggest reliefs) when people say they can relate to my descriptions, because it means I have accurately captured the sense of a place.
Validation is like a drug; over time I sought a larger audience, and after a five-day trip to Amritsar I thought, what larger platform than the national newspaper? Still, before my story ran in the Sunday Times in August, I didn’t tell anyone for fear of jinxing it, hardly daring to believe that three years after graduation, well after most of my peers had long made their mark writing local news, I would finally have my first ST byline. Nothing was set in stone until the paper arrived at my door, but once it did, for the rest of the day I couldn’t stop looking at the double page spread.
And then I was hooked. Writing my first travelogue was like studying literature, or learning about camera angles and film appreciation — I could no longer travel without unseeing the potential headlines, the story angles, the anchor photographs. Locals I talked to became sources I quoted. Visiting museums, I’d be gripped with all that I didn’t know about a place, all the background reading I ought to do for my story. I downloaded books feverishly and barely finished a quarter of them.
Traveling, and writing, and travel writing became a double edged sword, but I loved it. I loved how it gave me a sense of purpose on a walking tour, jotting down nuggets of information I was already stringing into a photo caption; I loved how anonymous, how invisible, and yet how powerful I felt wandering through the labyrinth of New York’s subway with a camera in hand, trying to capture the wear and wonder of this century-old dame.
I love travelling, and writing about travel made me love it even more, but the trajectory of this narrative already makes its end inevitable. Even as I loved travelling, or perhaps because I loved it so much, I was particularly sensitive to how it wore on me.
Fatigue became a slow creep because I never slept restfully on a plane or train or overnight bus (does anyone?), and towards the end of my trips I’d find myself looking forward to the creature comforts of home, and a shower where I didn’t have to cart all my toiletries back to my room in a soggy bag later.
Late at night, across timezones, I’d scroll through my Facebook feeds noting events — book launches, plays, yoga classes — I was missing out on, even though I knew I was seeing so much more in whatever country I was in. I missed my friends. I missed my work. I missed speaking in a Singaporean accent and not being met with a quizzical, semi-apologetic look, having to repeat myself while trying to enunciate even more clearly this time.
Above everything I knew these were first world problems, quibbles that would stop bothering me once travel felt less like a routine and more like a luxury, and in order for that to be true I would have to slow down.
So after fifteen weeks I came home, leaving wanderlust behind.
Except that I didn’t, really. I know myself well enough to know that wanderlust will catch up eventually, and I know this because I came home before I had the chance to tire of travel, or worse to fall out of love with it. Coming home was like pressing pause, like taking a break from a lover whose idiosyncrasies had become grating, leaving before I overstayed my welcome so I could always choose to return.
But so far, having spent a rainy December in Singapore and watching my friends jet off to Japan and Korea and London and Australia for the holidays, I don’t feel any envy or compulsion to be in their shoes. I’ve stretched my wings and they reassured me that I could soar; now I am just as happy putting down roots.
Some days, like weekdays spent writing in a CBD cafe, this is enough to make me feel light. When lunch hour ends and the executives pick up their wristlets and office lanyards, heading back to work to fight off a food coma, I am grateful that this is no longer my daily grind. At 5pm I pack my things and head for a yoga class and ask myself, in the space between namaste and my first sun salutation — how did I get so fucking lucky?
Singapore still frustrates me but I think wryly about my own relationship and I accept, grudgingly, that this is what love does. Some days I still want to throttle her, like when I am stuck in one-way traffic along Orchard Road and the GPS uncooperatively takes me in circles, or when I’m trying to get an Uber on a Saturday night and the surge is 300%. The sound of construction still reverberates too loud as this country rips through old facades and hacks away at heritage.
Why do I continue to love her then, and dare I call it unconditional? Maybe after 26 years the choice is no longer mine. We may have been cast together by virtue of my birth lottery but today there are things about her I have chosen. I write for her now, her ministries and stat boards and corporations and publications. I write about immigration, healthcare and travel; about living, dying, and grief. I write to give voice to her people — my people — to turn their stories into something enduring.
My last interview for the Children’s Cancer Foundation was on a December morning, with a teenage cancer survivor who had just finished her A Levels. She had braces and long hair and a denim jacket thrown carelessly over a bohemian spaghetti strapped top.
“I stayed out all night with my friends last night,” she said with a gentle smile, reminding me that at eighteen, I too had boundless reserves of adrenaline fuelled energy.
We were meant to talk about how she overcame cancer but the conversation meandered. She told me about school, about CCAs and junior college, and where she wanted to go for university. She told me cancer jokes her closest friends would make, jokes I knew immediately would not be kosher for publication but that I recognised as the hallmark of an unshakeable friendship.
I wound up the interview by asking if she had any words of encouragement for cancer patients, going through the same journey she had. “That no matter how bad the treatment is, one day it will end. I thought it would never end for me, but it did,” she said.
I rarely witness the positive impact of my writing, and that is perhaps one of the lonelier aspects of self-employment — not having a boss means I face no authority or criticism, but it also means most of my work garners no praise. Usually I don’t mind, because in lieu of positive affirmation I am constantly editing my own work looking for ways to improve, and I believe this makes me a better writer.
But that day, as I left the CCF office, I thought maybe someone might read her story, and it would make a difference. Let this be enough, I told myself firmly, if this what you remember 2016 for. I stepped out into a Saturday afternoon, and I let the year wind down around me.